As we pop bread into the toaster for our breakfast, and make the sandwiches for the school lunches, not many of us would know that only 25-30 per cent of our daily bread's wheat content is grown in New Zealand.

A campaign is underway to gain a much bigger slice of the market.

The Arable Food Industry Council (AFIC) – the umbrella group for cereal, grains and seeds growers, processors and researchers – has set itself a goal of New Zealand being self-sufficient in milling wheat by 2025.

According to its chairman, Ivan Lawrie, we're already there on product quality – "New Zealand milling wheat is as good as anything imported".

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The challenges are around competition, economics and confidence.

Read more from Federated Farmers here.

"To hit our target, we need to grow an extra 250,000 tonnes of milling wheat by 2025. That represents an extra 25,000-30,000 hectares planted, depending on whether that's irrigated or non-irrigated land.

"We're thinking that allows for growth of about 20,000 more hectares in the South Island and 10,000 in the North Island that are yet untapped," Lawrie said.

Chances are, if you live in the North Island your bread is made from imported wheat, but if you're in the South Island, your bread has been made with wheat from Canterbury.

But there's no on-farm reason why more can't be grown in the eastern and lower North Island.

"We've had farmers growing it there, and trials that show there is no lesser quality or yield than we obtain in the South Island. It would require us as FAR (the Foundation for Arable Research) to look further at specific cultivars that may work better for those regions in terms of disease resistance, and so forth."

Karen Williams, Arable Chair for Federated Farmers and a member of AFIC, considers the goal to be ambitious but doable.

"From a consumer perspective, I really like the thought of buying bread from my bakery or supermarket that is made from New Zealand grown wheat.

"To encourage more arable farmers to choose milling wheat as one of their crops of choice we will need open and honest conversations with the mills about price and contract reliability. In areas where less wheat is currently grown, we may see traditional livestock farmers use some of their better ground to grow wheat and tap in to an alternative income stream and spread their financial risk," Williams said.

Planting more cereal crops in the North Island is a plus given that more than three quarters of New Zealanders live on that side of the Cook Strait. But if the sector is to up its local volumes, and be competitive with imported product, particularly from Australia, the cost of transporting grain north from the South Island arable heartlands needs to be addressed.

"We're talking to national and local government agencies to see what we can do about improving infrastructure and the logistics of transport," Lawrie said.

Federated Farmers Arable Chairperson Karen Williams. Photo / Supplied
Federated Farmers Arable Chairperson Karen Williams. Photo / Supplied

"Cook Strait is a short but very expensive stretch of water when you're talking transport. We're looking at rail, coastal shipping and road transport. That includes exploring options around helping ensure that if a truck takes a load of grain north, there's a guarantee of some sort of load for the return trip south."

Competition doesn't just come from imports. Another big factor is farmers' decisions on how to use their land.

Cereals underpin an important part of the arable rotation. In order to produce the range of seeds, grains, barley, oats, etc that come out of the arable sector, cereals are the ultimate break crop, enabling the farmer to keep the rotation clean and free of soil diseases.

But while cereal grains provide about 50 per cent of income for the sector, they're also possibly the least profitable crops, Lawrie said.

Certainty of contracts, and even the timing of offers, has been a problem in the past.

As well as the cheap commodity prices coming from overseas distorting our market, when the dairy sector is riding high on strong milk solid prices, it's quite normal to see a bump in the domestic price of feed grains, and growers weighing up where the best money is can take that path.

A major strand of the self-sufficiency strategy is to get the millers to independently discuss with grower groups "more durable and timely contracts … to give growers confidence millers will be buying on an ongoing basis, and it's not just a one-off."

These negotiations aren't sector wide because they could be viewed as some form of market collusion.

"Timing is also key," Lawrie said.

"One of the issues has sometimes been that in autumn, if milling wheat contracts don't go out soon enough, then growers pressed to make sowing decisions don't wait around."

Photo / File
Photo / File

Another opportunity lies in growing cereal crops on livestock farms where nutrients need to be mopped up.

"There's quite a bit of serious research going on about cereal as catch crops. We think there are good opportunities for dairy, and sheep and beef, farmers to use part of their farms to grow some crops."

The last strand of the wheat self-sufficiency campaign is to better harness consumer awareness and demand.

"There are plenty of hints from the market that known-origin, domestic sourcing of food for human consumption is becoming more and more important for consumers.

"You'll see us being more active in the media about the benefits to the consumer of grains of good quality and local origin."

The quality of NZ milled wheat and consumer awareness underpins a multi-year commitment by Countdown in 2018 to use Canterbury grown and milled wheat for in-store baked bread and rolls across its 177 stores nationwide.

Lawrie doesn't see a 'grown in New Zealand' marketing push as likely to put the arable sector at loggerheads with those who are against country of origin labelling on the basis it may disadvantage us when we sell our products overseas.

"We're not saying, eat less of this and more of that. We're just encouraging consumers to be a little more discerning around understanding what's in their food.

"From an arable perspective, accurate food labelling is a right, if you like, for consumers to understand where their bread comes from."

Williams also acknowledges the challenges of food security for NZ bread consumers.

"In recent years we have seen the detrimental impact of drought in Australia on wheat yields. With climate change predictions, such situations may become more prevalent. It is vital that our industry builds resilience to combat such circumstances, and coupled with that, we get to enjoy bread that has been produced without emissions from fossil fuels to transport it across the Tasman," she says.